JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called off a visit to the United Arab Emirates on Thursday, citing a diplomatic disagreement with Jordan, in an embarrassing setback for his re-election campaign just days before the vote.
Netanyahu had hoped to use the audience with the UAE’s crown prince — their first public meeting since the countries established ties last September — to boost his campaign ahead of the March 23 election. Instead, he is having to explain to the public why his trip had been called off and doing damage control to protect Israel's fragile relationship with the Jordanians.
Netanyahu’s office said it had difficulties coordinating the flight over Jordanian airspace after Jordan’s crown prince canceled a visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, a sensitive holy site under Jordanian custodianship, due to disagreements over security arrangements.
Speaking at a news conference, Netanyahu said there had been a misunderstanding. By the time it was sorted out, he said it was too late to fly.
“I can fly through the skies of Jordan,” he said. “Until it was coordinated, today’s visit wasn’t possible.”
He said he had spoken by telephone to the UAE’s crown prince, Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and they agreed he would visit “very soon.” He also said the Emiratis informed him of plans to invest $10 billion in Israel.
There was no immediate comment from the UAE.
With Israel now locked in its fourth election campaign in two years, Netanyahu is once again trying to portray himself as an experienced statesman uniquely qualified to lead the country through its many diplomatic and security challenges.
One key pillar of that strategy, Netanyahu’s close ties with former President Donald Trump, is no longer relevant now that a new administration is in the White House. But Netanyahu continues to point to Israel’s agreements establishing ties with the UAE and three other Arab countries, all brokered by Trump, as among his proudest accomplishments.
Those agreements, however, have come at the expense of the Palestinians and neighboring Jordan, which after Egypt became the second Arab country to reach peace with Israel in 1994.
The immediate cause of this week’s dispute stemmed from Jordan’s role as custodian of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, the third holiest site in Islam. It is also the holiest site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount, and has long been a flashpoint for Mideast tensions.
Jordan's Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah II had planned to visit the mosque to pray on the Muslim holiday marking the Prophet Muhammad’s ascension to heaven from the site. But he turned back at the border due to a disagreement with Israeli authorities over the number of armed escorts that could accompany him, Israeli media reported.
Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, accused Israel of changing agreed-upon arrangements “at the last minute” and forcing the crown prince to call off the visit.
“His highness decided he did not wish to disrupt this peaceful night of prayer,” Safadi said at a Paris summit. “We cannot accept Israeli interference in the affairs of Al-Aqsa.”
Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan, said the spat reflected a deeper deterioration in relations in recent years.
“The major problem is there is no dialogue between the No. 1’s in Jordan and Israel, that is to say between the prime minister and the king of Jordan,” he said.
That lack of trust was highlighted by Israel’s plans last year to annex parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Israel suspended the annexation plan as part of its agreement to establish ties with the UAE, but Eran said the Jordanians remain deeply suspicious.
Jordan, which is home to a large Palestinian population, considers the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the neighboring West Bank to be a key interest, and any Israeli annexation would likely destroy any remaining hopes for Palestinian independence. Israel and the Palestinians have not held substantive peace talks in over a decade.
“At the least, they need a political process and movement toward a solution,” said Eran, now a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank. “The process itself is very important to the Jordanians and when it is not there, there are certainly concerns.”
Earlier in the day, Netanyahu’s office announced that his wife, Sara, had been hospitalized with an appendix infection. It said she would remain hospitalized for several days.
The canceled trip and medical emergency appeared to create unwanted distractions for Netanyahu’s campaign, at least for the day. The Israeli leader has focused his campaign on his successful efforts to vaccinate the Israeli public against the coronavirus.
In a little more than two months, Israel has vaccinated some 80% of its adult population, allowing authorities to begin reopening schools, stores, restaurants and museums just ahead of election day.
Yet opinion polls continue to show Netanyahu locked in a tight race against a crowded field of challengers. According to the projections, Netanyahu’s Likud is expected to emerge as the largest party, but without enough support from allies to form a governing majority coalition.
The UAE trip could have helped breathe life into the campaign. It also could help divert attention from Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial, set to resume April 5, and public anger over the economic damage caused by repeated coronavirus lockdowns over the past year.
Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at Hebrew University and senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said Netanyahu had suffered a setback on Thursday but still had time to control the agenda and set things straight.
For instance, Netanyahu might still find a way to visit the UAE before the election, Rahat said. And the vaccination campaign could help him more as the economy springs back to life.
Late Thursday, Netanyahu hosted the leaders of Hungary and the Czech Republic for talks on cooperating in their coronavirus strategies.
The Czech Republic also opened a diplomatic office in Jerusalem, lending rare support to Israel's claims over the contested city. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem, where the Al-Aqsa Mosque is located, to be the capital of their future state. Most countries maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv because of the dispute.
“You can call it a bad day for Netanyahu, but not more than that,” Rahat said.